Just a few months ago, the team at True North Distilleries in Grand Forks accepted a national award for their muscat liqueur – “Christmas pudding in a glass” – as well as for their absinthe, espresso vodka and their advertising campaign.
Then, just last month, the same stills dedicated to producing tasty drinks took on a new purpose: to make sure institutions in the Boundary stay clean, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We hadn’t actually considered being an emergency, necessary service,” said head distiller Scot Stewart. “We had already closed our doors. We were just going to do our part and stay home and – we were quite surprised to find ourselves back at work.”
On March 20, the provincial government gave the green light to B.C. distilleries to produce hand sanitizer and alcohol-based cleaner, seeing a run on store shelves across the province.
““The reality is, it’s a crisis. Everyone needs to do their part and this is the part we can do,” Stewart said. “We’ve got a list about as long as my arm of people who don’t have what they need, so we’re supplying it.”
With its first batch of sanitizer, approximately 2,000 litres, completed earlier this week for the hospital, True North Distilleries is preparing to serve an even greater demand from local first responders and major employers, such as Interfor.
But that’s not to say they’re doing it alone either.
In his announcement last month permitting distilleries to pivot into sanitizer, Attorney General David Eby said the move came amid “unprecedented times.” The blanket allowance means distillers are now able to either create hand sanitizer themselves and are allowed to donate “excess alcohol” to third parties who will manufacture the in-demand item. True North Distilleries has also launched a GoFundMe to raise money for supplies. According to Stewart, producing 20,000 litres of sanitizer could cost up to a quarter of a million dollars.
The Nelson Brewing Company is also feeding the stills, sending some of their alcohol down to Grand Forks in support. Meanwhile, local companies like Interfor are helping True North keep up with the ingredients and supplies needed to mix the World Health Organization’s recipe for sanitizer.
Nevertheless, Stewart said, he and his team are already finding themselves in short supply of glycerin, a key ingredient in making the sanitizer gel.
“If anybody has a hoard of craft glycerin somewhere – which is 99.7 per cent glycerin, vegetable glycerin, it’s used in candle making and things like that – if anybody has some, we would really be happy to get it from them because that’s what’s holding us up and it’s an integral element,” he said.
What’s coming out the other end of the process, Stewart said, is “something we would never serve as a potable liquor, but it’s perfectly acceptable for this, because nobody’s tasting it.”
While Eby said distilleries will be free to sell or donate the hand sanitizer they produce, Stewart said that his team is doing a lot by-donation for the moment, recognizing that they’re serving an important role to combat a world-wide crisis.
“I guess what I’ve learned is that everybody has a part to play in an emergency, even if it’s staying home, that’s what you should do. If you can supply something that’s in short supply, then you should do that. We’re worrying about getting paid – or at least breaking even – later on,” the distiller said.
“We’re going to keep producing it, as long as there’s a necessity for it. Everybody should do their part, and that includes staying home and not ignoring it. This is a serious issue and it needs to be dealt with seriously.”